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Separation Anxiety Disorder

What is separation anxiety disorder? 

Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is defined as excessive worry and fear about being apart from family members or individuals to whom a child is most attached. Children with separation anxiety disorder fear being lost from their family or fear something bad happening to a family member if they are separated from them. Symptoms of anxiety or fear about being separated from family members must last for a period of at least 4 weeks to be considered SAD. It is different from stranger anxiety, which is normal and usually experienced by children between 7 and 11 months of age. Symptoms of SAD are more severe than the normal separation anxiety that nearly every child experiences to some degree between the ages of 18 months and 3 years of age.

What causes separation anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders are believed to have biological, family, and environmental factors that contribute to the cause. A chemical imbalance involving 2 chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) most likely contributes to the cause of anxiety disorders. While a child or adolescent may have inherited a biological tendency to be anxious, anxiety and fear can also be learned from family members and others who often display increased anxiety around the child. A traumatic experience may also trigger anxiety.

Who is affected by separation anxiety disorder?

All children and adolescents experience some anxiety. It is a normal part of growing up. However, when worries and fears are developmentally inappropriate concerning separation from home or family, separation anxiety disorder may be present. SAD happens equally in males and females. The first symptoms of SAD usually appear around the third or fourth grade. Typically, the onset of symptoms happens following a break from school, such as Christmas holidays or an extended illness. Children of parents with an anxiety disorder are more likely to have an anxiety disorder.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder?

The following are the most common signs of SAD. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Refusal to sleep alone

  • Repeated nightmares with a theme of separation

  • Excessive distress when separation from home or family happens or is anticipated

  • Excessive worry about the safety of a family member

  • Excessive worry about getting lost from family

  • Refusing to go to school

  • Fearful and reluctant to be alone

  • Frequent stomachaches, headaches, or other physical complaints

  • Muscle aches or tension

  • Excessive worry about safety of self

  • Excessive worry about or when sleeping away from home

  • Excessive "clinginess," even when at home

  • Symptoms of panic and/or temper tantrums at times of separation from parents or caregivers

The symptoms of separation anxiety disorder may resemble other conditions or psychiatric problems. Always talk with your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is separation anxiety disorder diagnosed?

A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses anxiety disorders in children or adolescents following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. Parents who note signs of severe anxiety in their child or teen can help by seeking an evaluation and treatment early. Early treatment can often prevent future problems.

Treatment for separation anxiety disorder

Specific treatment for separation anxiety disorder will be determined by your child's healthcare provider based on:

  • How old your child is

  • His or her overall health and past health

  • How sick he or she is

  • How well your child can handle specific medicines, procedure, or therapies 

  • How long the condition is expected to last

  • Your opinion or preference

Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the child and family. Treatment recommendations may include cognitive behavioral therapy for the child. The focus should be on helping the child or adolescent learn skills to manage his or her anxiety. The goal is also to help him or her master the situations that contribute to the anxiety. Some children may also benefit from treatment with antidepressant or antianxiety medicine to help them feel calmer. Parents play a vital, supportive role in any treatment process. Family therapy and consultation with the child's school may also be recommended.

Prevention of separation anxiety disorder

Preventive measures to reduce the incidence of separation anxiety disorders in children are not known at this time. However, early detection and intervention can reduce the severity of the disorder, enhance the child's normal growth and development, and improve the quality of life experienced by children or adolescents with separation anxiety disorder.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Ballas, Paul, DO
  • Nelson, Gail A., MS, APRN, BC